Energy Against the Market

It is becoming clear that an energy transition will require the massive mobilization of the public sector and state power. Yet, too many narratives on the left end up reproducing an ideal of a free and fair competitive market. As Karl Polanyi famously argued, the idea of a self-regulating market is based in mythology. It has never existed. The market is never free or fair. It brings us booms and busts. It concentrates power. It only focuses on the short term. Most importantly for this essay, it does not (and I would add cannot) monetarily value the complex ecological systems that sustain life on this planet. We cannot “green” the market.

Yet sometimes our climate and energy politics implicitly assumes we can. In our neoliberal age of market idolatry, it becomes harder to realize when the logical outcome of our critiques reproduce market logics. I will lay out three common refrains in left energy politics that are themselves based on reasserting competition in a market.

The Critique of Big Oil

Who doesn’t hate Big Oil? Polls have revealed it is the most consistently hated industry in the United States. It gouges consumers, corrupts our political process, and destroys environments and workers throughout the world. Yet, we don’t often recognize that the logical corollary of this critique is the reassertion of “competition” in the marketplace. This ignores the fact that Big Oil itself rose historically as an answer to the ruinous and destructive forces of market competition (John D. Rockefeller infamously viewed the market as chaotic and irrational). It also ignores that neoliberals are equally disdainful of monopoly power – a threat to competition perhaps even greater than state intervention. Thus, we need to be careful that our critique of monopoly does not unwittingly call for more “competition.” There is no viable future based on a free and competitive energy market. Big Oil needs to be destroyed for sure, but we cannot imagine it should be replaced by innumerable small energy enterprises. (In fact, the critique of “Big Oil” actually ignores the reality of a multiplicity of small “independent” oil producers and refiners – who are a more dispersed electoral force on the right).

The Critique of Fossil Fuel Subsidies

There is no shortage of ire spent on the amount of money handed over to fossil fuel companies in the form of tax breaks and programs to make fossil fuels artificially cheap. Annual estimates range as high as $1 trillion globally, and $52 billion annually in the United States. Yes, this is terrible. Yet, much of the critique of fossil fuel subsidies is undergirded by the idea that if the market was truly fair, “green” and “clean” energies would win out. This is unlikely the case; especially in the wake of a massive oil and gas boom that have made gas and now oil very cheap (with or without subsidies). While we obviously don’t like subsidizing dirty fossil fuels, the truth is there is nothing inherently wrong with “subsidizing” energy production. The use of state power to favor a form of energy production in the public interest should be welcome. Those on the left who critique fossil fuel subsidies are basically repeating the same critiques on the right of the unfair support for green energy companies like Solyndra. The elimination of subsidies and the creation of a free energy market will not yield a livable future – the state (pushed by real social struggle of course) needs to be the force that pushes our energy system towards a collective solution.

Paying the “Real Cost” of Fossil Fuels

The idea that fossil fuels would lose out in a “real” competition to green energy is also rooted in the idea that much of the “cost” of fossil fuels are not adequately reflected in the price of these commodities. Thus, from neoliberal environmental economists (and cap and trade proposals), to left wing supporters of a carbon tax, the logical solution is to impose mechanisms that “internalize” the costs of energy into its price. Only if these costs are “internalized” will cleaner energy be able to “compete” with fossil fuels. Yet, these logics ignore how the capitalist value system is clearly unable to adequately monetize or quantify the destruction of complex ecological systems – like wetlands or the global climate system. Capital only values (and prices) natural resources (like tons of ore) that can be quantified and turned into profit. For sure, there have been attempts to “price” carbon or wetland destruction, but research has revealed that not only are such efforts nearly impossible to achieve, they are also rampant with corruption and profiteering (try to put a price on anything and you can bet some forces will seek to profit off of it).

Yet, the policies centered upon the “internalization of costs” are even more problematic from a left and working class perspective. How can we sell the idea of a “carbon tax” to a working class that is already taxed by wage stagnation, job insecurity, and mounting debt? Will low wage workers at Walmart and McDonalds struggling for $15/hour be on board with then having to pay the “true” cost of energy? This is akin to bourgeois food politics that simply says “good and sustainable food costs more” and ignores the classist and racist exclusions bound up with such a politics.

Beyond “Cost”

The truth is we need a politics that moves beyond viewing energy in terms of “cost.” The right has consistently been able to vilify left environmentalism for trying to make everyday life harder (and more costly) for “middle class” workers. Our movement must be one that recognizes the way we produce and consume energy is a collective public health disaster. Therefore, its provision cannot be left to the market or the private profit motive. Energy must been transformed into a public good akin to education and health care (at least those are viewed as public goods in some saner societies). Imagine a world where energy is not a cost at all; not a commodity purchased on the market; but a publicly provisioned collective good.

Overall, these critiques are obviously all productive in the sense that they call attention to the contradictions and pathologies of our fossil fuel powered political economy. But, instead of making market competition the implicit corollary of our critiques, we need to articulate a more explicit energy politics against the market. This means calling for the public development of energy infrastructure through public works projects (the banner of a “Green New Deal” has already been marshalled in these efforts) – from a renewable electric grid to public transit and the transformation of urban geographies toward more compact cities. This politics must be grounded in a refusal to cede our energy system to private for profit corporations – and the development of an energy system based on human needs rather than costs and prices. This form of politics will be needed to actually achieve the public and collective solutions needed to the crisis of climate change.